California Firefighters Battle Exhaustion Firefighters continue to battle blazes in California. NPR's David Greene talks with Ventura County Fire Captain Steve Kaufmann about how crews are holding up.

California Firefighters Battle Exhaustion

California Firefighters Battle Exhaustion

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Firefighters continue to battle blazes in California. NPR's David Greene talks with Ventura County Fire Captain Steve Kaufmann about how crews are holding up.


Wildfires raging here in the state of California have now burned some 600,000 acres. And this includes the so-called Mendocino Complex, which is now officially the largest wildfire in California history. Earlier, I spoke to Steve Kaufmann. He's a fire captain in Ventura County. He joined me from Mendocino County and the community of Ukiah. He told me how people are doing in one of the many shelters in the area that have filled up with hundreds of evacuees.

STEVE KAUFMANN: Some of them, it's been up to a week now. And just, you know, trying to explain why we still have them out of their home and in the evacuation shelter, that's probably the most vivid memory that I have of this fire.

GREENE: Are these families you're talking to - I mean, how are they getting by? Are they getting the food and support they need?

KAUFMANN: They are getting along fairly well. The Red Cross takes very good care of them and provides them, you know, a place to sleep, a shelter, meals. They try to, you know, accommodate most of their needs. In these shelters - not only do they have the family in the shelters, but a lot of the shelters are accommodating the family pets. And there's a whole variety of family pets that are in the shelters from bunny rabbits to dogs, cats, birds, stuff like that.

GREENE: I guess having your pets around might be one sort of memory of what it's like to be home and give you a sense of being home.

Captain, can I just ask you - I know that in one of these fires in California - the Carr Fire, not the one you're fighting - two firefighters were killed. How much does knowing that loom over the work you're doing?

KAUFMANN: Well, I mean, it definitely affects our firefighters. And we think about that every single day. And even at the camps that we don't have firefighter fatalities at, there are little, you know, memorials that the firefighters will go and sign to send up to the Carr Fire or the Ferguson Fire or any other fire that we have a firefighter fatality. It definitely - yeah, we think about it. And, you know, our families back home think about it. And you can tell when they're calling you, and they're concerned about you. And they want to know, you know, what your status is. And they, you know, want that daily check-in. It's definitely something that we think about. It weighs heavy on our hearts.

GREENE: Who are you checking in with? Who's calling you to make sure you're doing OK out there?

KAUFMANN: Actually, my parents. I make sure I check in with them and let them know when I get there and how things are going. And yeah, they're definitely concerned.

GREENE: The governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that this just is going to become a way of life in California, these types of fires. And I know there have been some reports that suicide rates have been going up among firefighters with all of these blazes, with the limited resources. Does that surprise you? And are you feeling pressures that are getting worse in this line of work?

KAUFMANN: You know, I don't know that I personally am feeling pressures. I know that - you know, I've heard those statistics. And I know that we're, you know, really trying to reach out. And the firefighter community is a tight-knit community. And one of the things - I don't like speaking on behalf of other people very often, but one of the things I do feel comfortable telling you is that for firefighters, this isn't a job for us. This is truly a passion or a calling. And so we take what we do every single day very seriously. And so when I go up to a community like this - there's going to be 3,900 firefighters on the Mendocino Complex. For all intents and purposes, we're the Mendocino and Lake County firefighters as long as we're here.

GREENE: Steve Kaufmann is a fire captain in Ventura County. But as he says, he feels like he's part of the fire community where he is fighting now in Mendocino County.

Captain Kaufmann, thank you so much.

KAUFMANN: Thank you, David.

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